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Chronicling some intimate hours spent with photographer Saul Leiter near the end of his life (he died shortly after the film’s 2013 festival debut), Tomas Leach‘s In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter makes no pretense to biography or an objective assessment of a career with which many viewers will be entirely unfamiliar. Instead, the doc is a cinematic hangout with a playfully prickly but very sympathetic subject, affording us a chance to sit at his feet while sampling a body of work that impresses on many levels. The film should attract the most theatrical attention here, where Leiter lived and worked for over six decades, but will interest photo buffs everywhere on small screens.
Leiter was a part of the so-called New York School, whose members Diane Arbus and Robert Frank became much more famous in fine-art circles. By contrast, Leiter worked as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and elsewhere, making unashamedly beautiful images that (along with his early adoption of color photography) likely kept many highbrow types from taking him seriously. Leach shows us examples of early work where pure beauty meets up with artful abstraction; a series shot through windows that are so fogged up that water is beading up and obscuring the view are especially memorable.
“A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person,” Leiter declares, recalling a New York City youth that found him rubbing elbows with the legends of Abstract Expressionism. (Cue great shots of art-world types ranging from John Cage to Andy Warhol.) But here and in discussing his boyhood (Mom bought him his first camera; Dad was an overserious Talmudic scholar), the recollections are more piecemeal than comprehensive.
We watch the now-old man dig through rooms full of work few people have ever seen, reminiscing about the (recently deceased) love of his life and delivering the occasional bit of wisdom like, “the important thing in life is not what you get, but what you throw out.” He sometimes hesitates mid-utterance, as if unsure how seriously he wants to take this whole documentary thing: Speaking of nudes he shot of one woman, he says he “did some pictures of her that are slightly…they’re slightly…” before simply moving on to another photo. Assistant and friend Margit Erb (a producer here) comes in from time to time to keep him focused.
Leach follows Leiter around his neighborhood, Manhattan’s East Village, where he lived in the same apartment for half a century. We see him wield a digital point-and-shoot on blocks he must know better than the lines on his face, but the photographer shows little of the weary resentment many bohemians harbor about this ever-gentrifying neighborhood. Cigar shops and Jewish delis may give way to bank branches and chain restaurants, poor immigrants be dislocated by trust-fund kids. But as long as there were people on the sidewalk and the occasional rain-streaked window to watch them through, Leiter seemed content.
Production Company: Little Scraps of Paper Films
Director/Director of photography: Tomas Leach
Producers: Margit Erb, Tomas Leach
Music: Mark Rustemier
Editors: Johnny Rayner, Kate Baird, Tomas Leach
No rating, 75 minutes
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